Do a quick poll of national hockey analysts, and they will almost be unanimous in believing that the Blue Jackets are well-positioned to do some damage in the short and long term.
It’s a shame that this season has been derailed by injuries to seemingly every key player on the roster, but the development of the Blue Jackets’ young players has been a bright spot or a silver lining within a lingering cloud of disappointment.
Make no mistake: it’s no fun to miss the playoffs. It's a total bummer and the guys in the room are the first to say it. But they have something to play for, beginning with their own pride in themselves, their pride in the organization and their fans who have been right alongside them.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise when the core group of players commits for the long haul.
Brandon Dubinsky: six-year extension. A heart-and-soul, emotional leader of a young team who is still only 28 years old himself.
Ryan Johansen: three-year deal. Only 22 years old and growing into one of the most dynamic young centers in the game. Size, smarts, skill…there’s a reason many pundits believe he’s the total package.
Nick Foligno: six-year extension. He’s already set a career-high in goals and points with three weeks left in the season, and this season, captained the home team at the Honda NHL All-Star Game.
Sergei Bobrovsky: four-year extension. One of the elite goaltenders in the game, a Vezina Tropy winner, an Olympian, all before the age of 26. He’s the backbone.
Scott Hartnell: a veteran presence with 25 goals on the season who has fit in seamlessly since coming over from Philadelphia this summer. He's locked in for four more years.
John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen took control of the Blue Jackets hockey operations department roughly two years ago, and when they did so, it all started with a vision and a plan to build the team into a long-term success.
That phrase is bandied about quite often in sports, one of building and sustainability and development. They often run perilously close to “buzzword” classification, as few teams actually exert the patience required to make it happen (the Detroit Red Wings are a model franchise in that regard).
When they do, though, the reward is fruitful – and there are several reasons to believe the Blue Jackets are headed down that road.
They made noise last season in the Stanley Cup playoffs, taking the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games and staged multiple thrilling comebacks along the way and got the attention of the national hockey media.
“This is a hard-working team. It's a competitive team and a team that you know exactly what you’re getting when you play them,” said NBC Sports analyst Keith Jones, a veteran of nearly 500 games with the Capitals, Avalanche and Flyers. “They’ve been devastated by injuries this season, and it’s too bad, because I think a lot of people — myself included — had really high expectations for them this season.
“I think they’re right there in the Eastern Conference. I have them as the third or fourth-seeded team, when they’re relatively healthy, when it’s all said and done. You look at players like Boone Jenner and Ryan Johansen…Jenner is a strong young player, a guy who's going to be a big part of what they're doing. Johansen’s a star, a special talent and he’s having another terrific season. There’s a good mix of talent there.”
Let’s rewind back to the 2013 NHL Draft at the Prudential Center in New Jersey, where the Blue Jackets were armed with three first-round picks and a multitude of options in a draft considered to be respectably deep. Kekalainen, highly-regarded throughout hockey for his talent evaluation (which stems from successful stints in Ottawa and St. Louis), opted to keep all three of those picks and add to an already-strong stable of prospects in Columbus.
Alexander Wennberg. Marko Dano. Kerby Rychel. Do those names sound familiar?
How about Oliver Bjorkstrand, the Western Hockey League’s leading scorer who just finished a regular season with 63 goals (no, that’s not a misprint) in 59 games? He was a third-round pick, 89th overall, in 2013.
Then you have Sonny Milano, the team’s 2014 first-round pick who is about to make the jump to professional hockey with the Springfield Falcons after 68 points in 50 games in Plymouth (OHL) and represented the United States at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
We could go on and on because the future isn’t far off, as we’ve already seen with Wennberg and Dano so far in 2014-15. Since being recalled midseason, both rookies have made significant contributions to the Blue Jackets as the season heads down the stretch.
And don’t tell these kids that the games aren’t meaningful – it couldn’t be further from the truth.
“One of the big things that’s going to help the Blue Jackets is their younger players like Marko Dano are playing expanded roles,” Jones said. “Dano is one of the guys who’s noticeable every time I watch the Blue Jackets play, and he fits right in.”
Here’s Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards on Wennberg:
“You’re seeing him grow. He’s getting better and feels more comfortable in that position. And because of that, he’s becoming a real, real good player in this league. It’s a credit to him and it says a lot about him as a young man and just being a professional. We use that word when we talk about players – and I’ll tell you what, Alex is a good young pro. He takes care of himself off the ice. On the ice, he does the right things and practices the right way. You see all these things are translating into his game, and he’s becoming a really good player.”
So when you hear that the best is yet to come, it's not lip service. It's legit.
“The Blue Jackets have a tremendous work ethic, and it’s been evident this season even through all of the injuries that they still work,” Jones said. “They work because that’s their identity and that’s who they are, and I think Todd Richards deserves a lot of credit for that and helping establish that kind of culture. The team is bought in to what he’s pushing; there aren’t many teams that come away from playing the Blue Jackets and think it was an easy night. I think there’s a lot of promise and a lot of hope for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“It’s going to be a gigantic leap next year — not just your simple step up. They’re going to turn a lot of heads before it’s all said and done.”